Women’s rights were of little importance to early settlers of the Ohio Valley. Survival in a territory inhabited solely by Native Americans, who’s land they had “purchased” (approved for passage by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787). Women were given the task of “dealing with them,” while their husbands were off clearing the land, building homes or foraging food. Of course missionaries were in the territory shortly before purchasing land was allowed and so the first “white” child to be born in the Ohio Valley was a German girl. Her name was Johanna Marie Heckewelder, born in Salem, near the Muskingum River on April 16, 1781.
Much like what I had read in the book “They Saw the Elephant,” about women travelling cross country to California for the Gold Rush – 1849, women made their living the best they could. In the case of Ohio settlers though, women and men were working together – for the most part – as a team. Unfortunately the division of labor meant that women would do anything that was needed but not so for the men. This means that men did not step over into “women’s” roles so it was not entirely equal. Early pioneer women might be called upon to “fell trees,” or build homes, or clear a path to their homes but they still had to cook the meals, give birth, and tend to the children at the same time. How they compared to the California women is that they figured out how to make money or barter for goods so that they could have food to put on the table for their children. The California women might not see their husbands for months on end (while they hoped to win the “lottery” at that time which was a chunk of gold). The Ohio women had their husbands nearby, though not always.
It was interesting to note, but not surprising, that Depression was a big issue in this time period. Many times these settlers had purchased land in lots that might include 120 acres. This meant being close to town was not always the case. And, as such, these folks would become very isolated from a social life. They lived in fear of the Natives due to an inability to communicate and, after British soldiers left the valley in 1812, a wave of kidnappings and raids began (between 1812-1825), leading to the “Indian Wars.” If this weren’t enough to worry about, until their home was built, living in a lean-to meant being in fear of wildlife. Sometimes men deserted their families and women were left to figure it all out, on their own, with their children. In other cases, women had to become nurses or healers and had the additional task of figuring out which herbs would work best to cure what ailed their spouses.
American Grit, is a book edited by Emily Foster (University Press of Kentucky), which is based on the letters and journals of Anna Briggs Bentley. Anna was a woman who came from Maryland and was raised in a somewhat affluent household. I say somewhat because her father, Isaac Briggs – a friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, just didn’t seem to be very good with money management or good ideas. When he died, he left the family deep in debt. Anna, the oldest child, and her husband left Maryland to try and establish a life in Ohio.
Anna and her husband, quickly learned how to establish roots in Ohio – which would have been hard for a woman used to servants. In their case, they were nearer to other people and she seemed to be very good at petitioning family or guests travelling in her direction to bring her things. She, like other women, also became handy in the art of bartering.
Anna’s family was of the Quaker faith and so, on top of building a homestead, she was eager to get this community going as well. What is interesting about this book is that while she was properly educated, she is poor at spelling and grammar which the editor, Ms. Foster, chose to leave in. Therefore, I found it quite humorous that Anna was chosen to be a schoolmarm for the children of their village. I imagine if any of her students went off to college, they would have been prepared for a rude awakening.
If you would like to read learn more about early pioneer life in Ohio or many other states around the country, there are a lot of books written about this. The Ohio History Museum, in Columbus, features many artifacts from this time period as well. The first chapter of the book “The History of Ohio’s Daughters” subtitled “Buckeye Women,” by Stephane Elise Booth gave a very good account of this time period. She mentions several women in this chapter and what they were able to accomplish as a Pioneer Woman in the Ohio Valley.